Call and Response: Curt Columbus

by Jeff Church


Post image for Call and Response: Curt Columbus

“…As a Chekhov translator you could spend your whole life waiting for a person to have that kind of visceral response to Chekhov and never see it happen. I felt really blessed to be in the room to watch a young person hear Chekhov in a way that made her leap to her feet.”
-Curt Columbus, I AM THEATRE 


Your recollections of that moment in your theatre remind me again of the truth that student matinees are the most exciting moments in any theatre, when the connection happens. When the girl in your audience jumped up and commented aloud, the fourth wall erased itself!

I find that my actors at the Coterie get addicted to that kind of response. Just last month during The Outsiders, we all admitted our addiction. Each day some kind of out-loud response would ring out in our rather intimate theater. The actor playing Dallas Winston told me in the scene where he pulls the gun on the doctor to demand the right to see his dying friend Johnny, a girl screamed out, “Oh no!” because she was in such distress over this. At that moment, the audience laughed at the outburst, because they recognized her response as right.

The cast and I talked about how much we loved that she commented aloud even though we had laughs in one of the tense moments of the play. Part of the transaction is understanding the newness of live theatre to students, and how rewarding it is if they happen to find us more interesting than the boring school field trip they had predicted.

More than any other audience, students really take the journey with you. They may start rowdy, and the teachers are trying to shush them. A theatregoer not used to student audiences might be very uncomfortable initially. But stick it out and you find how smart they are: how quickly they can get ahead of the plot if you’re not careful, leading to boredom. Or scoff at an acting moment if it isn’t believable, hurting your credibility. You know where you stand with them.

Why are public audiences so polite?

Are student the only ones who’ll do the loud vocal reactions, as if they were groundlings at the globe?

What gives them the freedom to do this when others can’t?

Let us know, or better yet, don’t tell, show.

Call and Response extends the conversation surrounding the I AM THEATRE videos (and hopefully inspires you to make your own video). You can watch Curt’s video and catch up on I AM THEATRE here.

JEFF CHURCH is Producing Artistic Director of The Coterie, a multigenerational theatre in Kansas City, MO.  He started a theatre in his hometown of La Junta, Colorado, at age 15 because there were no theatre opportunities.  After getting his BA in Fine Arts at Colorado College, he served as Playwright-in-Residence at The Kennedy Center for their youth and family programs. He joined the Coterie as Producing Artistic Director in 1990.  Coterie highlights have included producing the Coterie’s Great Books/Banned Books season, which included The Lord of the Flies.  Work with playwright Laurie Brooks led to The Wrestling Season, a respected young adult play first published in American Theatre magazine.  Jeff created the Coterie’s Lab for New Family Musicals, where the version of Seussical he developed with the Broadway composers is now the most performed musical in educational theatre in the U.S.  The Coterie’s recent musical, Lucky Duck, by Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls) will transfer to New York’s New Victory Theatre with the Kansas City cast this March.  Jeff has been an NEA site reporter and a board member of TCG, and was inducted into The College of Fellows of the American Theatre.  For the past ten years, he has taught graduate level Text Analysis for UMKC Theater.

  • Black Ops Artist

    I remember working at the Coterie when I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri @ Kansas City (1998-2001) and the put on an all black production of THE GLASS MENAGERIE where I got to play “Tom Wingfield”. The Jeff and the Coterie brought in some inner city schools to the watch the performance. Talk about Call and Response!!! Boy those kids loved the show and they were very vocal. I loved the call and response. Some actors were disturbed, at first. But soon got used to it.

    It is important for theaters to accept audiences for who they are, and if you are going to try and develop an audience that includes different ethnic groups, you better be prepared for different types of responses. You cannot expect “the old standard” (quiet like a library) to stay in effect. Can’t work like that.

    Back in those days, during my grad school days, I was not always my professors favorite, and I know that I gave Jeff a few stressful moments (Jeff, if I could take those days back and redo them proper, believe me I would. I apologize!). But I have always believed this about Jeff and the Coterie: THEY KNOW HOW TO CREATE PROGRAMMING FOR MINORITY AUDIENCES AND CREATES THE RIGHT ATMOSPHERE FOR AUDIENCES TO FEEL RIGHT AT HOME :)

    Michael Wayne Rice

    P.S. I don’t think young students are the only ones who use call and response. Go into a theater that produces for a primarily black audience and you will definitely see a call and response atmosphere. Put those same people in a typical theater in the U.S. that has a predominantly white audience and the call and response phenomenon is greatly suppressed.